- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The District's Constellation Theatre Company has admirably staged one of the most wrenching plays of the 20th century, putting a new spin on the incomparable Peter Shaffer’s tragic “Equus,” which continues through Sunday at the troupe’s home base in Northwest.

In Constellation’s version, superbly directed by Amber McGinnis Jackson on a thrilling stage design by A.J. Guban, Michael Kramer stars as British psychiatrist Martin Dysart, stuck in laconic middle-age malaise — what he terms “professional menopause.” Until the day he is brought a new patient, disturbed teenager Alan Strang (an incomparably strong Ross Destiche), who at first speaks to the shrink only in fragments of television jingles.

The young man, we soon learn, has blinded six stable horses, a morbidness that shakes Dysart from his ennui in an attempt to understand the demons beneath the otherwise-normal boy’s exterior.

Mr. Kramer has the misfortune to be taking on a role that will perhaps forever be associated with the late, great Richard Burton, whose thundering Welsh baritone and tempestuous torments thundered Mr. Shaffer’s text first across Broadway and then later in the film version of same directed by Sidney Lumet. While Mr. Kramer clearly knows the words, he seems to be missing the notes — never quite breaking through to the massive rivers of discontent Dysart keeps at bay beneath his English equanimity, and which his encounters with Alan serve to unlock by closing curtain. Mr. Kramer is serviceable in the roll, if not particularly outstanding, and his voice was often difficult to hear and his acting too frequently lacking in presence.

The emotional heft of the work is carried by Mr. Destiche, a Minneapolis native who has trod most of the District's stages in his professional acting career. At first I was somewhat doubtful at his flaccid visage in his early scenes, as if the young man was trying too hard to emote a sense of distance from the doctor. But as the play went on and Dysart, in his therapy sessions, gradually peels back the layers of Alan’s tortures, Mr. Destiche allows Alan to become unraveled, going from a shy young man to a scared child fettered by the religious dictums of his mother and his own guilt and confusion over his budding sexuality.

It is sex, ultimately, that lies at the heart of “Equus” and its tearing, shattered sense of morality. The word itself, “equus,” is the Latinate for “horse,” and it is for this very animal that Alan directs a perversely fervid desire — a transmutation from a more rightful attraction to the spry Jill Mason (Emily Kester) who, in flashback, sees Alan not just as potential partner in copulation but, more importantly, as a fellow damaged adolescent.

Costume designer Erik Teague does a fantastical job of bringing to life the six equines, who are divided between three women and three men in the ensemble. Alan’s preferred steed is Nugget, played by Ryan Tumulty, who has the unenviable task of having to carry Mr. Destiche on his back as Alan, under hypnosis, becomes ecstatic in dream reverie, riding Nugget across the English countryside in orgasmic rapture.

By the time of the play’s most notorious scene, where Alan and Jill shed their clothes inside the stable pre-consummation, Alan, once again under Dysart’s spell, becomes totally broken. Mr. Destiche and Miss Mason perform soldierly in not only being naked physically before an audience but also entirely emotionally bare, with Miss Mason as Jill struggling to understand and comfort Alan, persecuted by the voice of his equine god and unable to complete the sexual act.

Mr. Destiche’s acting during this sequence is a tour de force, one in which he laments and screams for the voice of his god to leave him be — all the while bearing not a stitch of fabric. It is a tremendous task for any actor to do with clothing, but Mr. Shaffer’s having written into the text that it must be done nude only underlines the descent of Alan into perdition.

Of the supporting cast, special note must be made of Laureen E. Smith as Dora, Alan’s pious mother, and the figure whose moral dictums, combined with her husband Frank (Michael Tolaydo) and his fierce crusade against television and media, infect Alan’s mind and serve to poison his soul to the point that he is at the mercy of Equus himself.

A fine production all around, with stellar direction and production values and an especially fine performance from Mr. Destiche as the haunted young Alan. It’s a new twist on Mr. Shaffer’s material, and one District audiences will find satisfying.

“Equus” runs through Sunday at Constellation Theatre Company, located at 1835 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20009. Tickets are $20 to $45 and can be purchased at ConstellationTheatre.org.

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